Remarks to Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients

September 21st, 2015

Harvard University
September 18, 2015

Thank you very much. I am humbled and honored by the invitation to address this gathering.

There is much talk about the word courage.  John F. Kennedy wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, about politicians who had the courage to take positions that put their re-election at risk. People in universities talk about scholars who are courageous because they take unpopular positions. The courage of those who speak truth to those in power, whether in companies or politics, is often admired.  I have been on occasion praised as courageous for challenging conventional wisdom. People are right to praise courage in all these forms.

Especially when I have been praised, it has seemed to me wrong and unfortunate that we use the same word courage to celebrate the valor of those who risk their careers, and to celebrate those – like many in this room – who put their lives on the line for comrades, conviction and country. That is courage of a different and more profound order, and it is courage that deserves, and only sometimes receives, an appropriate and far greater degree of celebration.

The term hero is used too promiscuously in today’s world to refer to anyone who has done a good and important job, or has led a team to victory in sport.  There are people in this room who are real heroes.  And looking out at the young people here, I suspect there are people who will be heroes in the future.

I am not someone who has served in the military.  And I am of a generation where most of my peers here at Harvard or when I was in Washington did not either.  So I cannot speak with knowledge and authenticity about military service, about combat or about physical courage. What I can say is that I – from my time as a citizen, from my time as Secretary of the Treasury and as Economic Adviser to the President, and from my time as President of this university – am very much aware that none of what we do would be possible without those who commit themselves to military service.

When I was President of the university, I attended each year the ROTC commissioning ceremony. I was proud to be the first Ivy League President in thirty years to do so. Each year, at that commissioning ceremony, I would say that the United States is strong because it is free, that our freedom and our traditions are central to our strength as a nation. But, I would also say that it is equally important to recognize that we are free because we are strong, and without a strong and second-to-none military, our freedom may not endure. The features of academic life that we take for granted, like the ability of any student or any professor to express any opinion, would not be part of our academic and our national tradition if we did not have people who were prepared to fight and give their lives for our freedom.

The observation that “we sleep soundly in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm” is often attributed to George Orwell.  Apparently no one has been able to find evidence that he wrote or said these words.  Little matter.  The sentiment is exactly right.  And it is one that we here in the university who sleep soundly and with serene confidence in our virtue need to always remember.

So my main message to you is a message of thanks.

But I want to use this moment also to reflect for a few minutes on the broader question of the relationship between the university and the military –or, between universities and the military, because almost all of what I am going to say, while it is rooted in my experience at Harvard, would be equally true at many other universities in our country. The good news is that there has been no moment in the last thirty-five years when the relationship between the university and the military has been as good and as strong as it is right now. No moment when members of the military have felt as welcomed and appreciated walking across the campus in their uniforms as they do today. No moment when the university administration has been as supportive of the military as it is today. That is a very good thing, and it is a thing that I believe is very important for the future of our country.

I think the question that remains is this: Is the university’s commitment to supporting those who serve in the military, and to supporting the military as an institution, a non-contingent commitment? Is it a commitment based on the reality that we could not be free without the military, and that we have an obligation as citizens to support the military, whether we agree or disagree with the decisions of our political leaders who exert civilian control over the military? Or, as I fear, is ours a contingent commitment to cooperate with and support the military when its approach, mission and strategy happen to coincide with our values?

I did not support the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy regarding gays in the military, and believe it should have been repealed long before it was. I believe the invasion of Iraq was a grave mistake and that the United States’ participation in Viet Nam was catastrophic. But none of those judgments led me, in any way, to back away from support for the military itself and for those who served in it. I do not believe that the support of this university, or any other university, for the military should be contingent on the political decisions of those who exert civilian control over it.

If we do not support the military, we put at risk the traditions of freedom upon which our country depends. So I am glad that we are in a current moment of rapport between the university and the military. But I have a continuing concern that that rapport is contingent and dependent on a current set of policy decisions of which members of this community approve. And I believe that that is fundamentally inconsistent with our obligations as an institutional citizen in a democracy.

I do not believe that it is for us to decide, as this university has in the recent past, that the military is not permitted to recruit on our campus. I do not believe that it is for us to decide, as this university has, that its resources cannot be extended on behalf of citizens who choose to participate in the military. I do not believe that it was moral or right, as was the case before I became president, that Harvard University students who participated in ROTC were precluded from listing their service in the college yearbook, because the college disapproved of the military’s policies as discriminatory.

What is the morality of our declining to fully support and cooperate with the national defense effort, that it enable us to sleep serene in our virtue at night while leaving others to defend us?  If we do not like the policies of our country we have plenty of ways of seeking redress.  Failing to honor and support those in our midst who are prepared to give their lives is a profound abdication of our obligation of citizenship.

I look forward to a day when the word “patriotism” will be heard more frequently on this campus. I look forward to a continuation of close and strong relations between this university and our national defense effort, including crucially this university and the military. I look forward to a day when that support is unconditional and not based on a judgment about the policies that are being currently pursued.

But let me finish where I started. It is an immense privilege for me to have the chance to be with you and to address you. From the bottom of my heart, on behalf of those who currently lead this university, on behalf of those who lead universities across the country, thank you for what you have done. Thank you, looking at the younger people in this room, for what you are going to do, to make our traditions of academic freedom long endure.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: This is an edited and slightly extended version of the remarks presented.